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Mason Goals

22 Jun Posted by in Observations | 12 comments
Mason Goals

This is the last blog I’ll write as Provost. I hope to continue blogging more occasionally, on various topics that reflect an appropriate distance from central administration. My thanks to those who’ve followed my blogs over these several years (both of you? Are there more?). I’ve appreciated the interest and reaction. I am actually turning to a book on current issues in academic administration, in which Jossey-Bass has expressed interest, where I hope to refine and expand some of the views I’ve been expressing, so stay tuned if you wish.

So a couple of final thoughts. First, as I had occasion to say at the May 12 event that was held for me, being Provost this long has been a rare privilege, certainly the most interesting job I’ve ever had. I am truly grateful for the opportunity, and even more grateful for the many people – Provost’s staff, deans, faculty, colleagues in central administration, and more besides – who have made the task on the whole extremely pleasant and who deserve full credit for any achievements to be claimed. There is much still to do, but I have to confess satisfaction in the many ways the University has progressed over the past 15 years.

This leads to the main thought, which I also tried to express on May 12: where should we be heading? I don’t mean the details of the new strategic plan, which is ambitious and fine, though my comments relate to the overall directions of the plan. I refer more to University identity.

And here we confront a puzzle: George Mason is really hard to categorize. When I first arrived I assumed my job was to help make the University even more recognized in the standard ways – move up in US News rankings, get mentioned more often as a research hub, become more selective, and so on. And we did do some of these things. But we also wanted to keep identities we already had, that were equally valuable: center of student diversity (US News shamefully ignores this in its main ratings); accessible to large numbers of first-generation students – and not just accessible – serving as a means for their academic success; eager to seize new opportunities and innovate where appropriate, without as much traditionalist resistance as is common in many other places.

We wanted, in other words, to be George Mason. I heard talk of earlier goals of becoming the “Harvard of the Potomac”, but this reference has faded partly because we simply lack the means, and partly because that’s not fully what we want to be anyway. Yet at the same time we’re not simply innovative and accessible. We really do want to move meaningful research forward. We really do want to combine opportunity with serious quality standards — otherwise we might have more degrees to brag about, but without the real service to students a good university must pledge. We want to be a distinctive mixture, and that’s what I hope we’ve been accomplishing and will accomplish in the future. We want to maintain an active, creative tension between serious conventional standards and the distinctive flavor we’ve developed as an up-and-comer.

Several years ago, pressed by a Board of Visitors interested in Mason aiming at “world class” standards, we hired a consultant who actually said it most clearly: strive to be the best George Mason we can be. Take pride in the difficulty people have in pinpointing us too easily. Take pride in the combinations. In the process we’ll find, as we already do with some of our international visitors, that other institutions will be seeking to adopt our formula. The leadership challenge will continue.

Once again, thanks to the many people who have helped me share in the process. I look forward to continuing to contribute as a faculty member.